Carolyn van Langenberg: Wollongongs Poet Fest

Can you imagine the sheer indulgence, the luxury, of attending a ten day poetry workshop at a university campus, food and board provided, and within walking distance of a surfing beach and excellent Italian coffee? I spent from January 6 until January 15 surrounded by poets involved in seminars, lectures and workshops for 12 hours on every one of those days except Sunday when I had time for a swim. I ate mainly Southeast Asian and Mediterranean inspired food, that is to say, the caterers cooked in the very appetising style known as New Australian Cuisine. Nevetheless, for breakfast I could choose between Chinese rice porridge with chillie, fish and soy sauces, and porridge oats with milk and brown sugar. The rooms were serviced. The coffee was a short walk away at an Italian workers club. (Nearby is an excellent wine and cheese shop. And the wines, all Australian, are another salivating story.) The venue is Wollongong University, New South Wales, Australia. The convenor of the workshops is Ron Pretty, a senior academic in Literature and Writing who has established an in-country reputation over several years for running a New Poets Publishing Program. Ron is Editor-in-Chief of the journal, scarp, publishing innovative prose and poetry. The editors of scarp are students enrolled in Wollongong Universitys Writing and Popular Culture courses. And Ron runs Five Islands Press (FIP). More about FIP later.

The January workshop is attended by poets who have a record of publishing in literary journals. When applying, the applicant enters a competition fielded by people who have had at least eight poems published in or accepted for publication in reputable small literary journals. There is room for variation, however; I had eight accepted by an academic journal, Review of Indonesian and Malaysian Affairs (RIMA), clearly a specialist Asianist rather than a specialist literary journal. But a criterion, that the applicant is other than a dabbler, exists. In 1998 for 1999, 120 people applied. Places exist for 40 only. And in this intake, Carol Frost, a tutor from Hartwick College, New York State, USA, brought 16 North American poetry students with her. This meant the places for the Australians contracted slightly, and it also meant a very rewarding engagement with some polished, thoroughly well-read undergraduates from another turf. Other than Carol, tutors included Australian poets Joanne Burns; Mal Morgan; Deb Westbury; Lauren Williams; and the academic/poet Michael Sharkey. Another American, Carols husband, Dick, a jazz musician and narrative poet, contributed to workshops and gave lectures. Every day consisted of a morning workshop; a lecture; an afternoon seminar/workshop; and in the evenings, there were readings and lectures. The meal-breaks provided loads of opportunities to talk to other poets about everything poets talk about. Nothing typified any of us other than an active engagement with poetry. It may be true to say most worked as teachers at secondary and tertiary levels. Others were social workers, nurses, waitresses, musicians, administrative assistants, researchers and computer hacks. Conversations could land you anywhere. I didnt write a lot while I was at Wollongong; I listened and learned a lot.

The publishing of poetry in Australia by the mainstream houses is a joke. Econometric thinking rules it out as not viable. Queensland University Press, Heinemann and imprints of HarperCollins maintain an interest, but they dont support unknown poets. Freemantle Press, Western Australia, may continue to publish new poets, but I havent seen anything carrying its imprint on the east coast for some time. Brandl & Schlesinger, a new publisher based in Sydney, produces beautiful books of poetry by carefully selected poets. The quality of books published by Brandl & Schlesinger is assured in every detail, and recommended without hesitation. But distribution is a problem in Australia the demographics alone make for difficulties. The upshot is Brandl & Schlesinger has not yet discovered a new poet, and it may not be in its interest to do so. This makes Ron Pretty, Managing Director, FIP, the most important publisher of poetry in Australia. To begin with, all participants at the Five Islands Press/scarp workshops are asked to include poetry produced from the workshops in an annual FIP anthology. And every year, Australians applying to participate in the January workshops who have not had a book of poetry published are invited to submit a manuscript for publication by FIP under its New Poets Publishing Program. Six previously unpublished Australian poets are chosen each year. (Overseas particpants are not elgibile for book publication under the New Poets Program.) And Ron choses well. FIP poets are highly regarded and regularly win the best of literary prizes. In 1999, the six are : Keri Glastonbury; Gina Mercer; Ted Nielsen; Martha Richardson; Rob Riel; and Michelle Taylor. None of them writes like Les Murray, perhaps the best known living Australian poet. If anything connects their work, I would probably say a rich sensuality, a gritty and positive engagement with the real, and perhaps a wise calm. It crossed my mind whilst listening to Gina read about compost and culture, Jon Silkin would approve. In The life of metrical and free verse in twentieth-century poetry (Macmillan; 1997 : p10) he observed: "For the great defect of modernism is that it has forgotten how to realise happiness, taking despair, as of supposed common consent, as humanitys yiddish, or lingua franca." Perhaps fifty years after WWII, and fifty years of televised warfare, we are coming to terms with the defect. When I went back home, I wasnt too sure where reality was. It took a week for the feet to begin to touch ground. And enduring is an exhiliration, a positive focus which, it has to be said, must be the best way to begin a New Year.

Fees for the 10 days Five Islands Press/ scarp workshop? UK pounds 220:00. If you like the idea of visiting Australia to experience its vastness from a poetic angle, and if you are a poet, write for more information before June to :

Ron Pretty,
scarp/Five Islands Press
PO Box U34
Wollongong University NSW 2500, AUSTRALIA.